DOHA // News of the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632AD took several decades to make its way around the world, but the outpouring of reverence and deference went on for several centuries, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike offering gifts both modest and majestic at the Prophet's tomb. Among the potential offerings was a carpet the likes of which has never been seen: an estimated two million Arabian Gulf "Basra" seed pearls sewn together to form the bed of the carpet, and a colour scheme designed with hundreds of glass beads, diamonds set in gold clasps and precious stones.
On display in Doha, the masterpiece known as the Pearl Carpet of Baroda is expected to fetch as much as US$20 million (Dh73.4m) on Thursday as part of Sotheby's Arts of the Islamic World auction. In 1865, Gaekwar Kande Rao, the maharaja of Baroda, one of the richest men of his time, is believed to have felt compelled to make an offering to the tomb of the late Prophet. A carpet, he believed, was a suitable gift, as he wanted to cover the tomb in a manner reminiscent of the tomb of Mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal in The Taj Mahal.
For 10 years, dozens of artisans workers toiled over the gift, carefully stitching together the seed pearls, each no larger than 2mm. The design in part emulates the details found in Safavid and Mughal carpets with dense fields of swirling, flowering vines that form a deconstructed series of three Mughal-style arches. "Throughout history we've seen carpets that consist of textiles with jewels woven in them, but we have never seen anything covered entirely in seed pearls," said Mary Jo Otsea, Sotheby's worldwide director for rugs and carpets. "There's really nothing like this anywhere in the world."
With their personal collections of jewels and gems, the maharajas were able to offer some of the most lavish gifts in the world. Historians have noted that pearls, coral and amber were customarily offered in homage to courtiers and holy men. "It was a custom of this period to offer gifts to political or religious leaders, almost like a diplomatic gesture, so the Prophet Mohammed received many gifts, even after his death," said Adil Hilal, a professor of Islamic history at Qatar University.
It has been written that the maharaja of Baroda, a Hindu by birth, may have turned to Islam later in life. However, with his death in 1870, plans to send the carpet overseas derailed and the Pearl Carpet of Baroda stayed in his family collection for the next 100 years. It was eventually moved from India to Monaco with the flamboyant wife of the Maharaja Gaekwar Pratapsingh Rao, Maharani Sita Devi, famed for publicly displaying her family fortune in the form of ostentatious jewellery.
After her death in the mid-1980s, the carpet was sold to a private buyer and has remained with that family until now. It remains a testament to the splendour and opulence that surrounded the Maharaja and his court. The Pearl Carpet of Baroda made its regional debut in a two-day private display at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi in February before coming to Doha. Bidding for the Pearl Carpet of Baroda will start at $5m, Sotheby's officials said, but they hope it will sell for significantly more. The worldwide auction house hopes sale of the carpet will be a bright spot in a declining art and collectables market in a downtrodden global economy. Sotheby's stock tumbled to $9 recently from a high of $57 in Oct 2007.
In recent years, Islamic art has proved itself a big moneymaker for Sotheby's, with total annual sales up to $30.2m last year from $6.86m in 2003. "Objects and pictures have proven over the years to be a stable investment," said Lord Mark Poltimore, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Europe. "Qatar has such a robust economy, so we'd rather be here than anywhere else." Sotheby's officials said Qatar is the ideal place for the sale since the Basra pearls came from the waters of the Arabian Gulf. The auction house opened a Doha office this year to complement its l office in Islamabad.
Other highlights of the two-day auction in Doha include three rare works by Rudolf Ernst, the Austrian artist, calligraphic works by Mohammad Ehsai of Iran, estimated to be worth $350,000, and Andy Warhol's Round Jackie, which is worth about $3m. email@example.com